The study, titled "Association of Nutrient-Dense Snack Combinations with Calories and Vegetable Intake," found that incorporating cheese into a vegetable snack:
- Leads to significantly lower calorie consumption and requires fewer calories to achieve levels of satiety than typical salty, non-nutrient rich snacks (e.g. chips);
- Adds protein and calcium without noticeably decreasing vegetable intake relative to when vegetables are eaten alone;
- May encourage healthier habits among children, especially those struggling with their weight.
"While there are other contributing factors to childhood obesity such as less physical activity, the increase in snacking and the eating of non-nutrient dense snack foods (e.g., potato chips, cookies, candy) in particular are considered to be major associated factors. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, children ate an average of one snack per day 30 years ago, while today's children eat nearly three," said Brian C. Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and lead author of the study.
In the study, 201 children entering 3rd-6th grades were randomly assigned to groups and were offered one of four snacks while watching television: potato chips, only cheese, only vegetables, or a combination of cheese and vegetables. Satiety levels were measured before participants began snacking, immediately after participants had eaten snacks, and approximately 20 minutes after snack consumption.
While the vegetable and cheese only snacks resulted in lower caloric intake than the chips only snack, neither snack left participants as satisfied as the combination snack of cheese and vegetables.
Additionally, children who ate the cheese and vegetable "combo" snack consumed roughly the same number of calories of vegetables as children who ate only vegetables. Meaning, those served the "combo" snack did not replace vegetables with cheese, but rather supplemented their vegetable intake with a source of protein and calcium.
"If children were to eat cheese and vegetables in place of non-nutrient dense snack foods, snacking could be a good source of fiber, protein and calcium. This observation aligns with the findings of other studies: the act of snacking can be associated with reduced obesity when the snack foods are of the healthier variety," Wansink explained in the article.
With regard to the specific use of cheese in the study, Wansink noted, "It is possible that there is something inherent in cheese that gives it a unique advantage in terms of satiation when combined with vegetables. Further research would be useful to compare various combinations of high-density snacks as well as explore the impact of combination snacks on intake over time."
The researchers also explored the potential impact of family environment and a child's weight on the benefit provided by the cheese and vegetable "combo" snack. Their analysis revealed that a high level of engagement between children and adults during mealtime is correlated with healthy weight in children. Also, while the reduced caloric intake effect of the combination snack was observed in a wide range of children, it was even more pronounced among those who were overweight or obese and those who had less interaction with parents concerning food and eating.
Overweight or obese children experienced a 76% reduction in calories as compared to normal weight children who experienced a 60% reduction when the potato chips snack condition and the combination snack condition were compared. Children from low-involvement families experienced a 77% reduction in calories consumed as compared to children from high-involvement families who experienced a 67% caloric reduction when the potato chips condition and the combination snack condition were compared.
Summarizing the implications of this research, Wansink stated, "For parents, eliminating snacking altogether is impractical and, in some cases, can backfire. However, parents could potentially replace some non-nutrient dense snacks with high-nutrient dense snacks such as a cheese and vegetable combination with less fear of backlash than if non-nutrient dense snacks were removed altogether."
Bel Brands USA (maker of Mini Babybel and The Laughing Cow cheese wedges) funded the research to help identify simple practices that can be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle and contribute to a healthy weight.
To view the study, visit http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/doi/10.1542/peds.2011-3895.